On November 16, I shadowed two Somali women as they waited in six lines at the King County Courthouse.  Only the poor must endure these lines.  Muma is a Domestic Violence Advocate with the Refugee Women’s Alliance.  Muma is not a lawyer but she was at the King County Courthouse to help Tende, another Somali woman, file a dissolution (divorce) petition.  Muma speaks English, has helped others file their papers, and knew her way around the courthouse.  Tende stands tall, erect, and proud, as she should; she has endured much.  She wore conservative clothes of bright African colors. Tende ‘s life has not been easy.  She is a refugee of the Somali civil wars and spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States in 2007.  She and her husband have three children and a fourth from a previous marriage.  She has not seen her husband for many months and he lives in Arizona.  Tende received assistance in preparing her papers from the Northwest Justice Project but even though she meets all poverty requirements, she is not represented by counsel, a stark reality in today’s budget climate.

No one questioned that Tende is indigent and entitled to have all fees waived but because she is unrepresented by counsel she must appear personally and stand in many lines.  The first line was at the clerk’s office on the sixth floor.  Tende  needed to have the $280 dissolution filing fee waived.  To do that she needed to present a motion and order to a judge.  In King County, such uncontested motions must be presented to the ex parte department where commissioners serve as judges.  Generally, everyone including lawyers must pay a $30 fee to the King County Clerk in order to have an order presented to an ex parte judge.  There are some exceptions to the $30 clerk’s ex parte fee but Tende had to obtain a “Present in Person” stamp on the order before seeing a judge. Muma told me she needed to “get the clerk’s permission.”  At the clerk’s office, a clerk examined Tende ‘s papers and then placed the stamp on the order.  So far so good.

We then went down to the third floor to the ex parte courtroom and waited to see the judge.  Not wanting to be recognized, I loitered in street clothes and a ball cap just outside of the courtroom.  Tende, with her Somali advocate at her side, presented the motion and order waiving the $280 filing fee to the judge, who signed it.  But the judge declined to waive the $20 Family Court Orientation fee and the $40 Parenting Plan Seminar fee noting on the order that the providers would have to waive those fees (more about those fees later).  The judge also declined to sign an order authorizing Tende to serve her husband in Arizona by mail, telling Muma that the case first had to be filed and have a case number assigned.

We trooped back to the clerk’s office on the sixth floor and the two women stood in line again.  They filed the petition and secured the all-important case number.   We then returned to the ex parte courtroom on the third floor where the two women got into line again to present the order permitting service by mail.  Unfortunately the order permitting service did not have the stamp authorizing Tende to proceed to a judge. Again, in King County, no order can be presented to an ex parte judge without paying the clerk $30 or obtaining permission from the clerk.  Even though it was the same judge that Tende  had seen a short time before, the judge refused to consider the order to serve by mail without the clerk’s permission.

We went back up to the sixth floor for a third time.   Tende personally presented herself and obtained the clerk’s permission stamp on the service order.  We went back down to the ex parte courtroom for a third time.  While the two women again waited patiently to present the service by mail order to the same judge, I was thinking.  Foremost, I believe that everyone who enters a courthouse should be treated with courtesy, dignity, and respect.  Everyone treated Muma and Tende with courtesy.  But this process does not treat the poor with dignity or respect.  Second, setting aside the poor souls trying to navigate the King County Courthouse, I observed an obvious waste of time and resources by both the clerk’s office and the ex parte court.  Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a one stop approach?  Third, the very existence of the clerk’s $30 fee to see a judge raises many questions,   but I think a determination of indigence for court proceedings is a uniquely judicial function.  Why was a clerk charging a fee or granting permission each time before Tende could even see a judge?  Shouldn’t the procedure be the other way around; first she should have seen a judge to decide if she was indigent?  In my mind, a court order of indigency should automatically waive all court access fees.  Once an order of indigency is entered, there should be no reason to make an indigent person stand in line to be charged a fee or granted permission to see a judge.  Which led to my fourth question, “Who in the world is in charge at the King County Courthouse?”

Later that morning, I sat down with Carrie Williams, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project.  She is one of those lawyers I admire so much because she toils in the fields of poverty law trying to protect the rights of the poor.  She assured me that before the implementation of the clerk’s fee, Tende would have been able to go directly to the ex parte judge where the order waiving fees and service by mail would have been signed at one stop.  Further, any person who has a lawyer in an uncontested dissolution proceeding would need to appear at the courthouse only once, at the final hearing.

King County charges more fees.  There is a $20 Family Law Orientation fee and a $40 Parenting Plan Seminar fee ($20 per person for those making under $20,000/year, but both parties must pay where the other parent is uncooperative, the parent wanting the divorce must pay $40).  This former fee is charged only of those who do not have a lawyer.  These fees too are subject to waiver based on exactly the same indigency standard as the $30 clerk’s fee and the $280 filing fee, but Tende will have to make another application to Family Court Services to have these fees waived.  One must first be receiving other benefits based upon income at 125 percent of the poverty line to obtain a waiver.  According to Williams, the judges appear to have erroneously concluded they do not have authority to waive these fees.  It must be done by mail and then the Family Law Seminar fee is never waived, it is reduced to $5.  Williams thinks that is a violation of the local court rule that says “The court may waive the fee for indigent parties,” and she would gladly challenge the $5 fee but there is a catch.  The catch is it would require a lawyer to challenge the $5 fee and the fee is only charged of those who do not have a lawyer.  It’s a catch 22, according to Williams.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the King County Courthouse is being run by the Sheriff of Nottingham, these fees are part of a user fee approach to pay for the administration of justice embraced by the King County Council.  Some or all of these fees are pursuant to county ordinance and incorporated into the King County Superior Court’s local rules.  Judges are sworn to enforce the law whether they like the law or not.   Things are seldom as simple as they seem and many judges feel their hands are tied.

Still, several King County judges have told me these fees do not impede access to justice in any way because they may be waived for poor people.  Williams disagrees.  For example, she points out that people who can afford a lawyer do not pay the Family Law Orientation fee and the very poor have the fee waived.  According to Williams, the working poor bear the sole burden of the fee.  Those who cannot afford a lawyer are required to attend a four-hour seminar.  This means missing work, finding child care, and arranging transportation for yet another trip to the courthouse.  Williams also pointed out that Tende was lucky because she had an advocate.  For some, Williams says, the King County Courthouse is a comedy of tears.

Superior courts are state courts.  One-half of the salaries of judges are paid by the state.  In my mind, any time one county begins to impose fees for mandatory services not charged by other counties to grant, as Muma explained to me, “permission to see the judge,” we should all be concerned about our access to justice.

(I have changed the names of the Somali women.)

Happy holidays all.